Movie Reviews: Philomena, Thor: The Dark World, The Num

Philomena ✩✩✩✩✩

Movie Reviews: Philomena, Thor: The Dark World, The Num

A joke about happy-ever-after endings runs like a seam through Philomena (12A), although the longer the joke runs, and the more it’s made at the expense of the title character’s simplicity, the more you fear that happiness will remain forever beyond her grasp. Born and raised in Tipperary, Philomena (Judi Dench) has lived most of her adult life in Britain. One day Philomena lets slip to her daughter that she once had a son; forced into a convent when she got pregnant as a teenager, Philomena had to watch as her two-year-old boy was handed over for adoption by an American couple. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former press secretary to Tony Blair’s Labour government and now a cynical journalist hoping to trade on Philomena’s ‘human interest’ story.

The film, directed by Stephen Frears, is adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith’s account of his and Philomena’s search for her son, although the story is more digressive and nuanced than the set-up suggests. Philomena and Martin make for a hugely enjoyable odd couple: she a straight-talking working-class mother with a fondness for Mills and Boon romance novels, he a sophisticated veteran of London’s corridors of power. We are left in no doubt as to who the intellectual powerhouse of the relationship is, yet when their conversations turn to the big questions of religion and God, Philomena’s enduring faith leaves the self-professed atheist floundering, not least because of how harshly she was treated by the nuns who essentially stole her child. Dench and Coogan are wonderful together, their initial culture-clash bridged by their common goal and their mutual inability to reveal the depth of their emotions. All told, it’s a very powerful account of faith, love and acceptance.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, and Thor: The Dark World (12A). The darkest of perils — ‘aether’, an timeless, infinite evil — has emerged to threaten the very fabric of the universe, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) naturally leaps to Asgard’s defence. But even the combined might of Thor and Odin (Anthony Hopkins) can’t protect the universe from an infinite evil, so Thor is reluctantly forced to return to Earth, there to reunite with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and make one last stand on behalf of the forces of good and light. Preposterous, of course, but then Marvel comics didn’t make its fortune on the basis of gritty realism, and Alan Taylor’s movie fairly revels in the ludicrousness of its situations, its larger-than-life characters, and the surreal nature of its vividly constructed action sequences. The bass-voiced, ornamentally sculpted Chris Hemsworth makes for an entirely believable Norse god, and he has the wit to deliver his lines in a tone that suggests his tongue is very firmly wedged in his cheek between takes. Natalie Portman copes admirably (and humorously) with the demands of her impossible role. Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba and Rene Russo provide heavyweight support, and it’s all terrifically bombastic fun, just so long as you’re prepared to lobotomise that part of your brain that insists that ancient mythology, magic hammers and laser-shooting spaceships don’t really belong in the same movie.

Adapted from Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse, and set during the 1760s, The Nun (15A) tells the story of a young French woman, Suzanne (Pauline Etienne), who is forced into a convent when her well-to-do family fall on hard times. Never the most spiritual of novices, Suzanne campaigns to be released from her commitment, in the process experiencing radically different regimes under three mother superiors. The personal is very much political here, as Suzanne’s unflinching conscience drives her through the rejection of unthinking belief in dogma for its own sake, but while the opening section is promising in terms of its sympathetic characters and nuanced performances — Etienne is excellent throughout — the second half of the film grows increasingly lurid. It’s beautifully shot, and boasts a strong supporting cast that includes Isabelle Huppert and Louise Bourgoin. That said, Guillame Nicloux’s initially fascinating film winds up, rather disappointingly, as something of an 18th century potboiler.

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